What Are The Characteristics, Skills, Mindsets And Tools Of High-Potential (HiPo) Innovation Leaders?

Article written by John Coyle and Jerry Leiby

Innovation Anyone? How Can I Identify And Develop The High-Potential (HiPo) Leaders Of Tomorrow?

Developing HiPo talent is a never-ending job. This is partly because business is ever changing, partly because there will always be reorganizations and changes to career paths, and partly because the HiPo profile in your organization will shift as your business pitches and rolls about on the ocean of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) that has emerged as the “new normal.” That said, in the face of all this change, some characteristics of HiPos have emerged that remain the same:

All HiPos are high performers, but not all high performers are HiPos: True, HiPos orient to their roles in a different way than other employees. HiPos are driven to establish control, and they tend to have little use for traditional hierarchical authority — it gets in their way. HiPos recognize that collaboration is essential to making change but are also willing to buck trends when necessary. HiPos live in the world of strategic and have a high disdain for doing things “the way they have always been done.” There’s also something else that distinguishes the HiPos of tomorrow from everyone else: They embrace innovation as a requirement for success. Their refusal to perpetuate the status quo is a hallmark of the HiPo. While they enroll others as necessary in their crusades for change, they don’t always seek “permission” to make shifts, and they often practice or develop new approaches back-of-house while still ensuring the performance engine putters on its merry way. Sometimes these leaders bump into the policy police and, when “caught,” offer no apologies: no blood, no foul. They view these conflicts as necessary speed bumps in order to find a new path to relevance. Within this continuum, we have identified two successful archetypes — the “Maverick” and the “Orchestrator.”

Mavericks swing the pendulum further toward “act now, ask for permission later,” and will tend to work with a small cohort off to the side, trying and trialing new approaches, service model changes or product ideas. When it comes to innovation, Mavericks are best at “fast-fail” types of projects, where the business has the capability, but the market potential is uncertain and the risks are relatively small for failure. Mavericks can often get marginalized if their leadership development doesn’t help them set expectations with their leaders and peers as to how they operate, teach them some essential tools of cocreation and collaboration, and help them ensure they have enough empowerment so that the system doesn’t reject their unique way of thinking.

Orchestrators tend to have greater tenure and leverage their networks to gain sway within the organization for changes they see as essential. Orchestrators will work primarily in and through the system to initiate new projects or products, using cocreation and consensus to gain traction. Orchestrators often get frustrated when things move too slowly or when their efforts initiate antibodies emerging from the system to block the way. Critical leadership development tools for orchestrators include training in dealing with conflict, modules on the “drama triangle” and how to help move from “victim” to “creator,” and work and planning around developing governance in support of change efforts.

Within these two archetypes is a set of mindsets, both of which are essential and in balance for high-functioning teams. We call these Idea Monkeys and (Ring)leaders. Most large corporate cultures are overloaded with the (Ring)leader mindset and a relentless focus on quality, process, efficiency, risk reduction, six sigma, analytics, etc. These are the essentials of running a modern, competitive business, but their domination often leads to the baby being thrown out with the bathwater. Those with the Idea Monkey mindset — pattern thinkers who can see beyond today and imagine alternative futures — are often either marginalized, fired or quit, and go run startups that might put you out of business. In the worst cases, these two camps develop contempt for each other and don’t work together at all, stifling all possibility for innovation. Helping HiPo leaders with these diverse mindsets learn to work effectively together is another essential component in the leadership development tool kit of tomorrow. When the (Ring)leaders dominate, they inevitably squeeze all creativity, risk-taking, engagement and customer focus out of the culture in the name of efficiency and quarterly profits. When Idea Monkeys gang up, they will launch half-baked, expensive, untested ideas into the marketplace and put the business at risk when they fail. Leadership development efforts for these two mindsets include training on design thinking, creative problem-solving, the separation of divergent thinking from convergent thinking, and linguistic changes that open up conversations for possibility and give Idea Monkeys space to lend their creativity.

Developing a group of highly motivated, diverse, generative talent necessarily relies heavily on the people side of the equation. Mavericks and (Ring)leaders tend to have no compunction about direct, candid conversation, and they run dangerously close to being seen as “knowers” when what they’re really doing is working overtime to find people to play with as “learners.” What all HiPos really want — Maverick or Orchestrator, (Ring)leader or Idea Monkey — is to change things in order to create a future that customers are begging for. And what they also risk is ruffling feathers on the way to doing so — of individuals or the whole flock. So developing the HiPo is a never-ending job, not because they’re high maintenance or undisciplined. In fact, they’re generally so disciplined they can quickly leave others behind. No…developing HiPo talent is about finding and teaching frameworks that can create dialog, trust and creative space where others can safely “play” with them. For the HiPos of tomorrow, Innovation Leadership Development is the essential key.

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